The Moneyist: ‘I feel like she has joined some abusive cult’: My wife makes $25,000 and only gets 1.5% annual pay raises. What can I do?

United States

Dear Moneyist,

My wife and I have been married for 18 years and met at work in 2000. She is college educated and has worked her entire life with the exception of a few years off when our kids were very young.

For the past 13 years of our marriage my wife has worked for the same employer, and in my opinion, it is an abusive and opportunistic relationship. The company simply does not value her and is taking advantage of her good will.

I have good reason to believe that they are making a healthy margin contracting her out to government projects.

Each year, her company has a sob story about why raises will not be given or will be so small (1% or 1.5%). Each year, she says to me, “They can’t afford to pay me more.” In inflation-adjusted dollars, she makes less now than she did when she started.

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Her employer has furloughed her multiple times over the past 13 years to suit its lack of proper contract management. She stays year after year out of fear, and a form of Stockholm syndrome.

I just received her 2020 W-2, and she made $ 25,000 last year given her low pay rate and lack of hours. Why would a college-educated professional with 13 years at her current employer continue to work for this amount of money?

I do comparatively well, so she has the luxury of telling her employer to stuff it and finding literally any other job she wants. I asked her to look beyond her job and possibly her profession, and she said, “What do you suggest given that money is not at issue for us as a couple?”

I feel like she has joined some abusive cult. She needs to look for a new job. but I fear she is unmotivated to improve our financial situation, and will just stay with her abusive employer out of fear. What should I do?

Concerned Husband

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Dear Husband,

You don’t say what your wife does for a living, but $ 25,000 a year is more than $ 10,000 below the median annual salary in the U.S. Her employer has, more often than not, given her an annual pay increase that does not even keep up with inflation. I can see how this would take a toll on her self-esteem — and, if this job does give her a sense of self-worth and identity, how she might cling to it, fearing that she would not find another job elsewhere.

Beyond your and your wife’s own relationship and psychology, there are issues here that are bigger than both of you, but not insurmountable. Women make an average of 80 cents on a man’s dollar; women of color often make even less. The more people who share their salaries at work, the more empowered employees will be. A culture of sexism persists. Female managers, for instance, are not only underrepresented in tech companies, they’re paid significantly less than men.

In a poll of 1,200 people released last month, more men (81%) than women (75%) said they would rather negotiate for a higher amount and settle for a number in the middle than ask for nothing. More women (57%) than men (51%) say they have never negotiated their pay. And more men (66%) than women (60%) say they would leave their role to find an equivalent position at a different company just to make a salary jump that they won’t get if they stayed at their current company.

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On the other hand, you don’t say what it is your wife actually does, whether she enjoys her work and finds it fulfilling, and whether she likes the people. I wonder if this is something of a “hobby job” for her, or somewhere she likes to go every morning, something that gives her structure and a sense of purpose. It may be that — given that you are financially comfortable and your wife does not need to work — she enjoys her independence and looks forward to going to work every day.

Without more information, it would be better for you to ask questions of your wife: “Do you like this job? Does it make you happy? If so, do you care about the stagnant salary? If it does not make you happy, why don’t you want to ask for more money or leave? What are you afraid will happen? What do you have to lose?” You could even role play to test-drive these conversations, each playing her employer and, looking ahead, each playing a job interviewer for a future position.

You never once mentioned that she is unhappy. Why is it important for you that your wife changes jobs, assuming she doesn’t mind the one she currently has? I suggest you address these questions in counseling together. Even if she does enjoy this work, I agree that she could and should push for more money. It’s a good fear barrier for her to overcome, and advocating for herself while divorcing herself emotionally from whatever response may come is also good practice.

How does your wife see herself in the world? And what does she think her employer sees in her? And what do you see in each other? Who is she without her job, and how does she feel about herself when she goes to work? These are questions we should all ask ourselves from time to time. The world is not bigger than our job that inhabits it. The answers to those questions may provide more than just the key to your wife’s salary negotiations. That, at least, would be the hope.

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